Both Yemen’s Houthis and Riyadh have committed horrible atrocities against Ethiopian migrants, rights groups say.
The terrible dilemma of Ethiopian migrants across Saudi Arabia and Yemen has shown once again how the fight for political power is creating insurmountable tragedies across the world.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopian migrants, who are merely seeking job opportunities across the Arab peninsula, have literally been caught in the crossfire between Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni enemies, the Houthis, who have been fighting with a Riyadh-led Gulf coalition since 2014.
First, they were expelled from northern Yemen to the Saudi border by the Houthis, who attacked them with rockets, and then, the migrants were shot at by the kingdom’s border guards ending with them languishing in detention centres in very poor conditions.
“What these people have gone through is unimaginable. Aside from conditions they are in now, they were shot out by rockets [launched by the Houthis] that pushed from where they were living in northern Yemen,” says Nadia Hardman, a leading Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, who has conducted in-depth interviews with the Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Ethiopia.
“[They were] shot at again [by Saudi border guards], so their friends and families were killed at the border and then taken to these detention facilities. So the psychological impact is going to be enormous,” Hardman tells TRT World.
“These people are caught between two combatants neither of which gives a damn about people’s lives in my assessment,” says Abdi Samatar, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria. Samatar is originally from Somalia.
On both sides of the border, Saudi security forces and Houthis have been attacking unarmed African migrants, primarily Ethiopians. While she could not confirm it, aside from Ethiopians, there might be other nationals like Somalis and Bangladeshis in Saudi detention centres.
“The Houthis were pushing us from behind. We tried to run in front of them but in front of us there was a mountain. There were people shooting from the top of the mountain, from the Saudi base and they were firing on us from there and they were firing behind, from the Houthi side, so we stayed in between the mountains. They were firing bullets behind us and then from the Saudi base they were firing too and so a lot of people were injured and killed,” said one of the migrants, Gabi, a pseudonym used to protect them from any attacks.
The Houthis deny any shooting of Ethiopian migrants while they claim they have wanted the migrants out of Yemen because they were “coronavirus carriers”.
But the Ethiopians tell another story, according to the HRW report.
“The Houthis were shooting at us. The Houthis came with military cars, like pickups – they were using weapons. There were very many soldiers, but I don’t know how many. Everyone ran for their lives,” said another migrant, Juhur, to the HRW.
Everyone, who has been regarded as an obstacle to the very survival of the Houthis, would be expelled from Yemen under the territories controlled by the group, says Samatar.
The Saudis were also equally brutal to the migrants.
“The Saudis were firing a rocket launcher at us. I saw people shot and killed and they rolled over on the ground,” Juhur says.
Samatar also sees cruelty in Saudi Arabia’s migrant policy.
“The tragedy is that the Saudi regime and its operations in the south have been totally ruthless rather than providing some sanctuary for people, who were expelled and had nowhere to go, until they expatriate to their home countries,” Samatar tells TRT World.
‘Horrifying’ conditions across Saudi Arabia
But even after tens of thousands of Ethiopians were able to enter Saudi Arabia, their tragedy has continued as they are being held in inhumane conditions.
“I mean it’s horrifying,” says Hardman, indicating that the HRW has, for a number of years, been documenting the treatment of migrants in Saudi detention centres..
“All the detention centres they use are pretty uniform with overcrowded conditions, limited to or no access to toilet facilities. Overflowing toilets or toilets don’t work. Inadequate food. People are given a piece of bread three times a day,” the researcher recounts her observations.
“[People are] forced to use the piping in the toilets as a water source to drink from. People describing having to sleep, eat, and go to the toilet in the same place,” Hardman says.
Those with skin problems from the unsanitary conditions also have no access to medical care.
“People complain that they were beaten invariably. Women, pregnant women and children are in the same facilities,” she explains. In one of the detention centres, there was no roof, allowing rainwater to flood over the facility, she says.
Many migrants have not been able to change their clothes in six months because Saudi authorities confiscated their belongings at the border, the researcher says.
“They are desperate. The story is so moving and compelling, but desperation that people feel is difficult to translate into words because they see no hope. Nothing has changed,” she says.
Despite the Saudi promise of an inquiry over the mistreatment of the migrants across the kingdom, where 16,000 Ethiopians have been held in just one of the facilities, according to the Ethiopian consulate in Jeddah, Hardman has seen no evidence of any investigation at all.
She also assesses there has been no real change in the conditions with which the migrants currently live. “I understand from detainees that the situation remains the same,” she says.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, she thinks the Saudis have resources to address the problems associated with their treatment of migrants across their detention centres.
“It’s inexplicable. They have resources. It makes no sense,” she says.